Prescribed fire is a management tool in which under certain conditions (wind speed, direction, relative humidity, fuel moisture, etc.) fire is reintroduced into an area in which fire has, historically, been suppressed. Science has proven that many of these areas actually require periodic fire to maintain them in a healthy state. For instance, some trees' seeds are dependent on the high temperatures generated by fire to release their seeds. While a prescribed fire in a pine forest will remove small hardwoods which at maturity could tower over and shade out the pines. These areas are called fire dependent ecosystems.
In February 1998, the park conducted its first prescribed burns in Naval Live Oaks. A total of 63 acres were burned. During 2000 - 2001, an additional 360 acres were treated with fire. While some areas of Naval Live Oaks will not be scheduled for prescribed burns so as to preserve the live oaks, other areas will be managed to return the area a longleaf pine forest. Most areas of Naval Live Oaks have gone without fire for 70 years and it will take 70 more years to rehab them.
The hurricanes of 2004-2005 had a huge impact on coastal forests. Trees were knocked down by high winds or damaged beyond recovery. Storms also weaken healthy trees so that parasites such as the Ips or Southern pine beetles can infest them, eventually killing them. The end results – a huge quantity of standing and downed dead wood which could lead to the most destructive possible effects of the storms – wildfire.
It is imperative that these piles of dead and downed wood, called “jackpots” by firefighters, be ignited under prescribed burn conditions. In order to avoid a catastrophic fire and return the area to it’s natural state; prescribed fires are conducted each winter when conditions are cooler and somewhat wetter. With the right weather conditions and experienced fire crews standing by, the chance that these piles of timber could fuel an out-of-control wildfire is greatly reduced.
Did You Know?
Gulf Islands National Seashore's Fort Massachusetts, on West Ship Island 12 miles off the Mississippi coastline, was covered by the 30-foot storm surge from Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005. The fort has been reopened to the public.